The mayor looks at the shabby tents where earthquake victims have lived for the five months since their mountain village was destroyed.
Ihsan Khan, 47, is not like any other government official in Pakistan. He is a former Chicago resident and Northern Illinois University student, a one-time cab driver in Washington, D.C., and a citizen of both the U.S. and Pakistan. He is also a multimillion-dollar Powerball winner who was elected mayor of his hometown district in Pakistan two days before the devastating Oct. 8 earthquake.
Now Khan is helping his destroyed district with his lottery winnings.
On this day, Khan is not happy with what he sees in the government refugee camp — the people cooking over stoves in cramped tents, the tent that caught fire the day before, the tents pitched on sticks.
"This is appalling," Khan said. "What you see here — they could have done better than this."
This is his home, and he feels it is his responsibility. After spending half his life in the U.S., Khan has left his American Dream behind, or at least put it on hold, to help the place where he grew up. Khan won election as nazim, or mayor, of Batagram district after deciding to run against the local families who had controlled this region for generations. Nothing his opponents called him — "American Dollar Man" or "Lottery Man" — kept him from getting votes.
Maybe the name-calling helped. After all, no other town in the wild North-West Frontier province of Pakistan, run largely by conservative clerics, has a mayor who won $18 million in the lottery, after taxes, as Khan did in 2001.
In Pakistan, the average annual income is less than $500. Even before the earthquake turned buildings into piles of rocks, Batagram was a hardscrabble place nestled in a picturesque mountain valley, essentially a subsistence farming town. Donkeys still lug bags of wheat on rutted roads. Children play with a handful of rocks or a wheel and a stick.
Khan is trying to rebuild the entire district of Batagram, where 4,500 people died in the quake. He said he already has spent about $300,000 of his own money on drugs and medical supplies for survivors and tin roofs for shelters. He is paying to send some local young people to college. Khan also plans to build a school, to be named for his late mother.
On a recent afternoon, Khan walked around a refugee camp, home to 3,040 people from a town on the far edge of Batagram district. Many are not happy. They are deferential to Khan, and walk up, one by one, to shake his hand and share their sorrows.
The national government expects them to move back to their remote mountain village the next day. That will mean a four-hour drive followed by an eight-hour walk.
Sayed Zarin Shah, who guessed he was about 60, pulled his right pant leg up to show off a gnarled scar from an earthquake injury. He leaned on a cane and shook with the effort of standing.
No place to go
"We don't have a place to go," Shah told Khan.
"You have to go from where you came," Khan replied. "There will be a lot of stuff going with you."
This is a role that Khan is not entirely comfortable with. He does not like politicians or government, although he graduated with a political science degree from Northern Illinois University in 1987. There is little that he can do about regulations that require all refugee camps to close this month. There is little a nazim can do except shake hands. He has no real policy-making authority. He can only set out plans for rebuilding, which will take years to complete, even with him providing seed money.
Many times, Khan seems more American than Pakistani. He walks with a barrel-chested swagger, punctuates his sentences with what could only be termed a guffaw. His most frequent phrase is "way too," as in "way too much money" or "way too different." His campaign posters featured him in a tie, rarely seen in the North-West Frontier province.
Khan is blunt. He complains of refugees wanting "more, more, more."
At the same time, for all his discomfort being mayor, Khan has done what is rare in the world of lottery winners, better known for squandering their millions than for trying to do good.
"Why I came here is I had some obligation, something to pay back," Khan said.
Most of his life, Khan seemed to be running as far away as possible from Pakistan and poverty. At about 21, he moved first to the Chicago area, and after marriage, a son and a divorce, to Washington. He lost touch for years with his Pakistan family, who thought he was dead.
Eventually Khan came back home. He married a Batagram woman. But he stayed in Pakistan only a month here, a month there. Always, he returned to D.C., where he drove a cab, making about $3,000 a month.
A 'beautiful' dream
The dream came to him in the early 1990s — a "beautiful" dream, one with diamonds and rubies and Khan speaking to a crowded room of "way too many people." Then the numbers popped up: 2-4-6-17-25-31.
Khan says he played those numbers for years. In November 2001, with no. 31, he hit a $55.2 million Powerball jackpot. Khan chose a lump-sum award of $32,499,939.24, which after taxes worked out to about $18 million.
He gave one last cab ride — free — before walking away from his job. He bought a million-dollar home in Virginia and a Mercedes-Benz. He started an education foundation named after his late mother. And then he moved home.
When Khan was elected mayor, he hoped only to unseat the families who had run the district for years. The earthquake hit as he walked through the cemetery. He felt the ground shake, saw cracks snake up the buildings. "I saw houses to the right and left, falling down," he said. People crawled out from under the rubble, crying, yelling, blood running down their faces. "Some dying before me," he recalled.
Since then, Khan has dealt with the survivors and the wreckage. He works out of a white tent, in the shadow of the damaged district office. A phone line has been strung into the tent. Khan sits behind a walnut desk propped up on bricks.
At one point, while Khan was walking through the refugee camp, a crowd of 50 men surrounded him. Khan tried to pre-empt them. "When you go back, we'll give you blankets, food, shelter," he said. "Everything is finished here."
Gul Zarhamed, 28, wanted to know if the government would give him a tent. Other men started shouting questions — about money, about permanent homes, about what Khan will do.
"I will also be with you people," he said.
Nobody seems to believe him. Khan walked away, shaking his head.
"I would be worried too," he said. "It's not the best of anything here. But it's still something."